How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways | Peter Gray, PhD


From Psychology Today: “Is it true that hunter-gatherers were peaceful egalitarians? The answer is yes.

During the 20th century, anthropologists discovered and studied dozens of different hunter-gatherer societies, in various remote parts of the world, who had been nearly untouched by modern influences. Wherever they were found—in Africa, Asia, South America, or elsewhere; in deserts or in jungles—these societies had many characteristics in common. The people lived in small bands, of about 20 to 50 persons (including children) per band, who moved from camp to camp within a relatively circumscribed area to follow the available game and edible vegetation. The people had friends and relatives in neighboring bands and maintained peaceful relationships with neighboring bands. Warfare was unknown to most of these societies, and where it was known it was the result of interactions with warlike groups of people who were not hunter-gatherers. In each of these societies, the dominant cultural ethos was one that emphasized individual autonomy, non-directive childrearing methods, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making. Their core value, which underlay all of the rest, was that of the equality of individuals.

We citizens of a modern democracy claim to believe in equality, but our sense of equality is not even close to that of hunter-gatherers. The hunter-gatherer version of equality meant that each person was equally entitled to food, regardless of his or her ability to find or capture it; so food was shared. It meant that nobody had more wealth than anyone else; so all material goods were shared. It meant that nobody had the right to tell others what to do; so each person made his or her own decisions. It meant that even parents didn’t have the right to order their children around; hence the non-directive childrearing methods that I have discussed in previous posts. It meant that group decisions had to be made by consensus; hence no boss, ‘big man,’ or chief.

If just one anthropologist had reported all this, we might assume that he or she was a starry-eyed romantic who was seeing things that weren’t really there, or was a liar. But many anthropologists, of all political stripes, regarding many different hunter-gatherer cultures, have told the same general story. There are some variations from culture to culture, of course, and not all of the cultures are quite as peaceful and fully egalitarian as others, but the generalities are the same. One anthropologist after another has been amazed by the degree of equality, individual autonomy, indulgent treatment of children, cooperation, and sharing in the hunter-gatherer culture that he or she studied. When you read about ‘warlike primitive tribes,’ or about indigenous people who held slaves, or about tribal cultures with gross inequalities between men and women, you are not reading about band hunter-gatherers.

. . . The hunter-gatherer way of life, unlike the agricultural way of life that followed it, apparently depended on intense cooperation and sharing, backed up by a strong egalitarian ethos; so, hunter-gatherers everywhere found ways to maintain a strong egalitarian ethos. Now, back to the main question of this post. How did hunter-gatherers maintain their egalitarian ways? Here are the three theories, which I think are complementary to one another and all correct.

Theory 1: Hunter-gatherers practiced a system of ‘reverse dominance’ that prevented anyone from assuming power over others.

Theory 2: Hunter-gatherers maintained equality by nurturing the playful side of their human nature, and play promotes equality.

Theory 3: Hunter-gatherers maintained their ethos of equality through their childrearing practices, which engendered feelings of trust and acceptance in each new generation.

. . . In sum, my argument here is that the lessons we have to learn from hunter-gatherers are not about our genes but about our culture. Our species clearly has the genetic potential to be peaceful and egalitarian, on the one hand, or to be warlike and despotic, on the other, or anything in between. If the three theories I’ve described here are correct, and if we truly believe in the values of equality and peace and want them to reign once again as the norm for human beings, then we need to find ways to deflate the egos, rather than support the egos, of the despots, bullies, and braggarts among us; make our ways of life more playful; and raise our children in kindly, trusting ways.”

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  1. We must rise up because the Neanderthals lived in peace. We must rise up because the Dutch painters lived in peace. We must rise up because the Denisovians lived in peace. We must rise up because the monkeys lived in peace. We must rise up because the daffodils lived in peace. We must rise up because the peace and love Woodstock Hippies lived in peace. We must rise up because the Apaloosa ponies lived in peace. We must rise up because the babes in arms lived in peace. We must rise up because the clouds lived in peace. We must rise up because the rain lived in peace. We must rise up and keep rising up and keep rising up and keep rising up and in our rising up pick up our cudgels and bayonets and sledge hammers and become the biggest and the fiercest and the best of the best again and stamp out the lowest of the lowest of the low until they stop looking pleased they accidently brought back a slightly plump antelope to share. Maybe a pregnant antelope. Maybe a greedy lowest of the low antilope who did not let other antilopes munch the grass on the hillock.

    No peace comes through rising.
    No peace comes through grovelling.

    Peace comes through being who you are.

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  2. I believe these groups for one reason or another just about replaced their numbers. They didn’t get to threaten other groups territories.

    They also had lots of leisure tme, so it wasn’t in their interest to get on each others wrong side. Ultimately there would be no benefit to be gained from a power grab.

    The more advanced civilisations hoard their possessions because they mightn’t get anything from anyone else if they don’t hold onto what they have.

    Years ago when white children were captured by American Indians and eventually rescued – they always tried to escape to get back to the Indians.

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  3. I think there’s a lot of Rosseauism in this article.

    My Aboriginal ancestors were perhaps the nearest thing to ‘pure’ nomadic hunter-gatherers on the planet when first encountered by Europeans. But reports of their pacifism are seriously exaggerated, not least by those who think their subsequent dispossession, oppression and slaughter were the regrettable but inevitable consequences of social Darwinism. “If we didn’t do it, someone even nastier would have”.

    My forbears didn’t make lil-lils, shields and war boomerangs for decoration you know. And unlike New Agers and corporate motivators their warrior culture wasn’t an affectation.

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  4. I also think this article starts from universalist assumptions about individualism that would have been quite alien to many cultures prior to European contact.

    If you don’t start from a position of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ in relation to possessions, power and status then it’s not really egalitarian to fail to competitively seek to enhance those aspects of your social identity rather than trying to live in accordance with tried and true social relationships that have been handed down in tradition, myth and lore for centuries or millennia.

    Probably few could even have imagined more individualist ways of life, much less felt the need to ‘maintain their egalitarian ways’. Propagating Abrahamic notions of a personal relationship with a judgemental creator God, rather than a more holistic view of People, Land and Divinity as inextricably interwoven, sure seems an effective way of undermining such societies.

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    • An excellent perspective! I doubt that hunter-gatherer societies spent a lot of time talking about “egalitarianism.” They just lived in the ways that worked for them, which included a level of collaboration and respect for differences, just because that was what worked best over their history.

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